Spotify, Uber, and the problem of evil

September 30, 2015

OK, so the title is maybe a little irrelevant and inflammatory, but what’s wrong with a little clickbait once in a while?

I like to feel as if I’m taking the moral high ground because I don’t use Uber. They epitomise the worst excesses of Silicon Valley “disruption” and I think they are a negative force in the world.

But the thing is, I don’t care about the market that they’re disrupting, and my boycott of Uber involves making absolutely zero changes to how I would live my life anyway.

I hardly ever take taxis, and as a cyclist, taxi drivers aren’t exactly my favourite people.

So I’m basically calling bullshit on myself here on the subject of Uber.

On the other hand, I do use Spotify, even though I’m fully aware of the pitifully low royalty rate that they pay to musicians, and the impact that streaming services seem to be having on the music industry.

Once upon a time, I was a musician, releasing records on an independent label, not making enough money to give up the day job. If there was more money floating around the lower reaches of the music industry, I might still be doing it, although the reasons I stopped aren’t really as simple as that.

Anyway, the point is that I care more about independent musicians than I do about taxi drivers.

I kid myself that Spotify aren’t so bad, that they’re better than piracy etc, but the simple fact is that I used to spend a reasonable amount of money each month in record shops buying CDs, and now pretty much the only money I spend on recorded music is my £10 a month that goes to a tech company.

To be fair, Spotify seem to be trying to do the right thing, introducing features like linking through from artist pages to vinyl and merchandise sales. And maybe Spotify themselves aren’t the actual problem, but just a symptom of the problems facing the music industry in the digital age. While I’m not sure that they are the disease, nor am I entirely convinced by their claims to be part of the cure.

So yes, I do feel more than a little queasy about Spotify, although being able to have most of the world’s music at my fingertips is enough of a temptation that I’m going with it for now.

But it’s not just about the money, and Spotify and Uber aren’t outliers. Every day there seems to be another story in the news about a technology company putting profits before principles, and valuing “disruption” over boring old ideas like privacy. In spite of the utopian ideals of the web and the open source movement that helped to build it, sometimes it feels like we work in an industry that is charging headlong in the wrong direction. Tech companies are moving too quickly for regulators to cope, a bit like terrorist groups or the inventors of legal highs. As an industry, we need to think seriously about our values.

As developers, it’s easy for us to be seduced by the challenges of projects and the shiny new technology available, rather than considering our responsibility to act ethically. We should be trying to make the world a better place as part of our work. It seems idealistic, but what’s wrong with that? The company I work for don’t seem to be too bad, as big companies go. A while ago, were aggressively recruiting Drupal developers, and a lot of my colleagues were horrified by the idea of working for a company like that. But if our company won a contract with arms dealers, or a morally questionable overseas regime, would we refuse to work on it? That’s a more difficult question.

Maybe don’t be evil is a code to live by, but just as Edmund Burke suggested, it probably isn’t enough. I like to think I’m a good person, but what good things am I doing, and is it enough?

I get annoyed when I read articles about the terrible things rapacious capitalists are doing, and I might sign some online petitions once in a while.
I give money to some charities.
I work with open source software, and try to contribute back to it, albeit in a relatively small way that fits in with my job for a big enterprise.

So maybe I’m not actively working to make the world worse, but what am I actually doing to improve it? How does my ethical balance sheet stack up?

Perhaps you should be asking yourself the same questions. Are you using your skills to improve the world, or are you part of the problem? In other words, which side are you on?